Sunday, August 6, 2017

As AG, Justice Not on Sessions' Agenda

      Attorney General Jeff Sessions might have had a momentary chill when his assistant told him last weekend [July 29] that the White House was on the line. But the caller, it turned out, was not his berating tweeter in chief, President Trump, but the new White House chief of staff, John Kelly, calling to assure Sessions that he could rest easy about staying in office.
      Thus reassured, Sessions still spent the next week doing what he could to raise himself in Trump's esteem with, among other policy moves, a full-scale press op to detail a resource-fed crackdown on leakers. Trump had recently taken to describing Sessions in tweet storms as "weak" and "beleaguered" based on apparently inadequate prosecutorial attention to a rash of unauthorized disclosures weakening his already weak presidency.
      The press conference that Sessions convened along with two top Trump administration intelligence officials [Aug. 4] followed news from earlier in the week that the Justice Department was deploying its civil rights division to crack down on racial preferences in college and university admissions. Ironically, news of the policy shift emerged not from an official announcement but from a leak to the New York Times's well-sourced reporter, Charlie Savage.
      The leak helped renew the vigorous debate over affirmative action in political, legal, and media circles: the pros and cons of racial preferences for minority applicants themselves; the larger role of "legacy preferences" in favoring white applicants; and the possible effect of preferences for African American and Hispanic applicants on Asian American applicants. In political terms, however, the details of that debate are less important than the signal that Sessions' policy shift sends to Trump's political base and to the conservative legal movement.
      Those constituencies undoubtedly view Sessions' latest policy shift favorably as a clear sign that Alabama's favorite son is on their side in the culture war against the coastal elites —  the "cosmopolitans," as White House aide Stephen Miller might call them. Already in just six months, Sessions has shifted Justice Department policy on civil rights by backtracking from the Obama administration's opposition to Texas's voter ID law as racially discriminatory and by formally opposing the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's position treating anti-LGBT discrimination as illegal under existing federal civil rights laws. In his confirmation hearing, Sessions endorsed voter ID laws and disclaimed any knowledge of anti-LGBT discrimination.
      The anti-leaking event gave Sessions the chance to rail about "the culture of leaking" only a week after Trump's latest tweet that Sessions had "taken a VERY weak position" on "Intel leakers. In contrast to the reversals of Obama policies, Trump told the assembled reporters in the department's seventh-floor conference room that the department is following and actually outstripping the previous administration by tripling the number of leak investigations over the number ongoing as Obama left office.
      The leak investigations that the Justice Department identified for the Washington Post's reporters covering the event are not the kind that Trump is complaining about. Only one of the four related to the media: the leak of a top-secret National Security Agency document to a news organization from Reality Leigh Winner, a 25-year-old government contractor. The other three cases listed by the DOJ spokesman all related to contacts with or disclosures to foreign intelligence agents.
      Journalists naturally flinch when the government talks about cracking down on leaks. Tellingly, Sessions declined at the news conference to repeat previous Justice Department reassurances that journalists would not be prosecuted for publishing truthful information or that journalists would be subpoenaed to disclose sources only under limited circumstances.
      Sessions' silence on those concerns is troubling of itself, but more troubling is the extravagantly broad view that Trump and his supporters are taking of what constitutes an "illegal" leak. Trump and any number of his cable news apologists constantly complain about James Comey's supposedly illegal leak of his conversation with Trump while still FBI director in January: the conversation in which Trump allegedly asked Comey to end the investigation of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
      Comey's divulging of that conversation, through an intermediary, was embarrassing to the White House certainly, but in no way illegal. No classified information was released, nor any details as to the FBI's pending investigation: only the president's views and his policy directive. Consider how often government officials, members of Congress, or private citizens go straight from an Oval Office conversation to recount the conversation to reporters waiting just outside the mansion. That is not a felony, only part of governance in a free-press, democratic republic.
      Sessions won confirmation as attorney general on a 52-47 vote in the Senate, with the support of his 51 Republican colleagues and one Democrat: West Virginia's Joe Manchin. Sessions remains the same hard-line conservative that he was before that vote and in his confirmation testimony, but today he enjoys support from both sides of the partisan aisle thanks to Trump's criticism of him for failing to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.
      Kelly's call to Sessions may show that Trump has either dropped or been dissuaded from any idea of firing him as a first step in removing Robert Mueller as special counsel for the Russia investigation. For the sake of that investigation, Sessions may still be needed in his post. But make no mistake: as attorney general, justice is not on Jeff Sessions' agenda.

No comments:

Post a Comment